Wave Train

The St. Croix River from the Gordon Dam to Danbury, Part II

We woke up that morning at Buckley Creek. We had paddled seven miles in yesterday’s last light to get there. It was a long, cold night. It’s hard to sleep when your teeth are chattering. Why the hell didn’t I bring that sleeping bag? Was I that concerned about the weight of the boat, or was I just some city dweller trying to prove that he could go without? I dunno. It’s not like sleeping out in the cold is some great feat; people do it all the time. I mean, shit, we at least had a tent and blankets. That being said, it was still May in northern Wisconsin. There was a frost that night.

To make me sound reasonable, I’ll say that I left the sleeping bags in the truck because I was concerned about the weight of the boat. This first section of the St. Croix River can be quite shallow, so the heavier the boat, the more time you spend with your ass scratching along the riverbed. Having your ass sitting in water all day will chill you to the bone.

When we woke, the rain had stopped and the sky was a bright steel gray. We started the slow shuffle out of the tent and into the boats.

I made breakfast as my brother went to filter some water. When he got back to the camp he suggested that I go check out Buckley Creek. After breakfast I decided to investigate the bubbling brook that we listened to all night while shivering in the tent. It was my first real moment of the trip. The scene at Buckley Creek was so fertile it was dripping with life. It was a picture of spring. The creek was moving really fast. It rolled and slid down its stone bed on a pretty good decline. It sounded like a marimba tumbling down a hill. The forest was tightly packed red cedar, forming a canopy overhead. The forest floor was thick with duff from the cedars with patches of ferns here and there. You only have so many moments on a trip like thisyou have to soak them in. It’s those moments that make all the work it takes to get to such places worth it.

I was snapped out of this sylvan scene when I started thinking about how far we needed to travel that day. This was the day of the big paddle. We wanted to make it at least as far as the Riverside Landing, about 16 miles downriver from our present location. Truth be told, we had originally planned on pulling out at Riverside, but Jerry the outfitter convinced us that we should go the extra 10 miles downriver to Danbury. Seeing that we did seven miles on the first night, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to paddle 26 miles in the next day and a half. But we needed to get our asses on the river, pronto.

We pushed the boats down the muddy banks and into the river at 9:00 a.m. This being the Friday before Memorial Day, we figured that we might see another person by the end of the day. But in the beginning, we had the entire river to ourselves. The St. Croix is only a few hours away from Minneapolis-St. Paul, but most of the weekend warriors put in at Riverside and go downstream from there. That was where we were pulling out, but still, we knew that by Saturday the river would not be so private.

The river moved quickly to the County T Bridge two miles downstream. Past the bridge the river shallowed and sped up. The flow of the water kicked up another gear. It flowed fast over gravel beds and through rocks. There were no large drops but there was a nice fast downhill run that made you pay attention. Paddling on fast water is like skiing down a 26-mile-long bunny hilljust a steady, never-ending decline.

As I turned a bend in the run, there was a something holding a can of Busch in my way.

The can of Busch was attached to a sunburnt body clad in cutoffs, bad facial hair, and dark Tom Clancy glasses. It was 10:00 o’clock in the morning, but he looked like he had already had a few.

“Where are you guys coming from?”

“We put in at the Gordon Dam.” This was met with a blank look. “It’s about 10 miles upstream, at the St. Croix Flowage,” we explained.

“Oh jeez. You guys came all that way this morning? Ya wanna beer?”

“Uh … sure.” In some areas of the country, Busch is a premium beer.

“God Bless America.”

“Happy Memorial Day.”

“Yup.”

Crack.

What is a boat without a beer can rolling around inside the hull, anyway?

As we got back on our way, the river ended its long slide downward and widened out.

Then it began to rain.

It started off in a harmless way. You wouldn’t even have noticed it if you weren’t on the water witnessing every raindrop hit. Those little impacts grew larger and more frequent. The droplets that shot up from the water increased in size with the size of the raindrops coming down. The rain fell more and more strongly until the water looked as if it had grown thousands of undulating glass spines. We were both wearing rain gear but, out on the water, you’re a sitting duck. There’s no cover at all. At some point the rain gear stops keeping you dry and just channels the water off you more efficiently. Thank god for the wet suits. I have to say that if not for the wet suits, I would not be looking upon this trip so fondly. Rain ain’t nothin’ in a wet suit.

The wind battering the boats started to slow down our pace. We had to stay closer to the riverbank to keep from being pushed around. This was still spring in the Northwoods of Wisconsin and there was still some violence left in the weather.

Around noon we approached Big Fishtrap Rapids. We has traveled seven miles from the sunburnt American. The rain had subsided, so we figured it was a good time to pull out and have some lunch. There we found a great campsite on the east bank of the river right before you hit Big Fishtrap. This was one of the bonuses to having the river to yourself: every campsite was open.

We were feeling pretty soggy from all of the rain so we decided to make some tea and take a breather. A little shot of bourbon in the tea made it just right. We busted open some smoked almonds and some smoked tuna for an easy high-fat/high-protein lunch. As I sat down to enjoy my food I was overcome with a force that would haunt me off and on all day: Incredibly Itchy Ass (otherwise known as IIA). My brother suffered from it too and at times it was unbearable. The problem is that you can’t really get to it unless you get under the wet suit. This meant occasionally we were forced to get out of the boat, drop the suit, and maniacally scratch our asses. IIA was no doubt a result of being in the wet suits for too longand the day was just starting.

We felt some new raindrops as we finished up our lunch. We moved quickly to pack up and get everything back in the boats. As we pulled the boats back down the riverbank a large bald eagle took flight on the opposite bank. It’s amazing how still a large animal like that can sit; then once it starts moving, you can’t imagine how you didn’t see it before. This guy was sitting on the opposite bank of the river thinking to himself, “Hey, dipshits. How ’bout you get away from my fishing hole?” To him, we were just those monkeys that come back every spring.

As we got back into a rhythm, the rain began to pound us again. Throughout the afternoon it would subside and return, ebb and flow. It rained like hell but at least it would occasionally stop to let us catch our breath. It was like fighting a 10-round fight: you’ve still got to go back to your corner every so often.

The river grew larger and wider. The rapids and riffles faded away and the water deepened as we drew ever closer with its convergence, the Namekegon. The Namekegon River is also managed by the park service as a National Scenic Riverway. It’s a popular place for overnight canoe trips. The further we went down the river, the better our odds were of seeing somebody else. But for now, although it was the Friday afternoon before Memorial Day, the river was still all ours. The rain had helped in that regard.

The banks of the river started to pull up into hills. That swift downhill run started to turn into the river that most St. Croix paddlers know. The St. Croix grows larger and wider as it moves south, becoming the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota. By the time it met the Mississippi it would be filled with powerboats and thousands of people celebrating Memorial Day. But right now the rain gave us the river all to ourselves.

We occasionally found some cover under larger trees on the riverbank. This was great because it was the only time we were actually able to talk to each otherout in the open, the rain hitting the water created a hiss that drowned out everything else. At times like that you have to use hand signals and stay within site of each other.

The rain was really starting to slow us down. We had traveled 10 miles before noon, but now we were nowhere near that pace. We decided that as long as it kept raining, we would keep paddling: no point in sitting still in the rain. You’re just further from where you want to be, so you might as well keep moving.

The rain finally gave us a break. As we approached the Big Island, the skies parted and the sun came out for the first time that day. It was close to 4:00 p.m. Shit, we had traveled only six miles since we left Big Fish Trap. We had originally talked about spending Friday night on the Big Island, but that was when we were pulling out at Riverside, only two miles downriver. Since we were now pulling out at Danbury, spending the night at the Big Island would leave us a 10-mile trip the next morning.

This is where we made our first mistake. Well, okay, getting talked into going to Danbury was probably our first, so this would be our second. Let’s just say this: it wasn’t our first or our last.

The sun was out, the campsite was great, but we decided to move on. Maybe it was because we had started so late the night before. Maybe it was the massasauga rattlesnake we saw at the campsite. Either way, we chose to push on and leave the Big Island. We moved quickly past Riverside Landing, although it looked like a nice enough place to pull out and seemed to have been recently remodeled. The next campsite was right on the Minnesota border at Stateside Rapids. It was only four miles downstream on an island in the middle of the river. If we pulled the paddles out and floated, we would get there by 6:00 p.m.

That is if the rain didn’t return.

The drenching hiss was back soon after we left the Big Island.

The rain came down harder and colder than it had been all day. It would surge down at us in blasts. Some of the stronger blasts were accompanied with hail. The pea-sized stones bounced off the boats and stung our backs. The weather then calmed into a steady rain.

That was when we started to question our decision to pass up the Big Island. If we had stayed, we would at least have had the tent up by now. To complicate matters, at this point the river had many small islands and we had no GPS. Finding the campsite at Stateside Rapids was not going to be easy. We were going to have to pull up and inspect several small islands before we found the right one. Many things look like a campsite marker in the middle of a downpour when you’re cold.

After mistaking several small islands for our destination, we finally found the site around 6:00 p.m. The rain was still steadily hitting us as we shored the boats. The site was in a small clearing on the riverbank. It was muddy and wide open to the elements. If we stopped here, we would be setting up the tent in pouring rain and we would have no fire. Not only is it illegal to gather fallen wood on an island in a National Scenic Riverway, there wasn’t any wood there, anyway. All of the trees were green and about 20 feet tall. And even if there had been wood, it would have been soaked.

This is when we made our next fateful decision. It was 6:00 o’clock, the same time we put in the day before. There was another campsite four miles downriver at Crystal Creek. It was still raining and we had made a vow not to stop in the rain. We got back in the boats. Maybe the rain would stop. Maybe there was dry firewood and a magical beer spigot at Crystal Creek. I dunno. Anything sounded better that spending a freezing wet evening with no fire surrounded by even more water. We paddled seven miles that first night. We decided to paddle on four more miles based solely on the chance that the next campsite might be better.

As we moved away from Stateside Rapids, the rain weakened. We now had Wisconsin to our right and Minnesota to our left. One of the bonuses to camping at the next site was that it was actually in Minnesota, and I had never camped in Minnesota before. The rain faded off into a trickle and then stopped. It felt like a reward, like vindication for passing up the Stateside Rapids. Our vow to keep paddling as long as it kept raining seemed to be paying off. The sky returned to its illuminated slate gray color and the sun occasionally burned through, raising our hopes for a fire that night. We were feeling pretty good.

Then we went around a bend and saw the Crystal Creek site. What was that white thing?

Oh my god. Shit … a tent?

A fucking tent. A tent and a boat.

I banged my head on the hull of the boat. We were so fucked.

It never dawned on us that the Crystal Creek site was the last campsite before Danbury. It was now 8:00 o’clock on the Friday before Memorial Day. Of course we were going to see somebody else on the river at that point. In all of the rain and paddling, we had forgotten that it was now Friday night and we were on a more popular section of the river. We were face to face with the Other Guy on the River. The only other paddler we had seen on the river in 29 miles. I felt really dumb and disappointed. I think my screams of anger and frustration scared him into his tent. What the hell were we going to do now?

We floated down the river with our heads hung low. We decided that we would try to illegally camp along the river, but there’s a reason why some sites are campsites: they’re on dry land. At that point the river is very wide with an even wider flood plain on either bank. It was spring and it had been raining all day. We would have had to portage the boats past the floodplain to find dry land, then illegally camp in the state forest … on Memorial Day weekend. We finally realized that we were beat. We had no other choice other than to push on to Danbury, finishing our trip that day instead of the next.

The weather that had pummeled us all day decided to take pity on us: the sky opened up to reveal a sunset. Danbury was only two miles downriver. The plan was to pull out and walk into town to get my brother’s truck. As disappointed as I was that the trip was over a day early, it was comforting to think about that nice, warm truck. A shelter made of steel, not nylon, with a heater. We would pull into Danbury at 9:00 p.m. with the last sunlight fading out. My brother decided to walk into town while I stayed with the boats.

As I waited for my brother to return with our salvation, I was overcome with hunger. I rummaged through my pack and found a Ziploc full of sunflower meats. My hands were dumb and cramping up from all the paddling. The meats were small and slick and fell though my slow fingers. I was forced to cup my hands and just shovel the meats into my mouth. It was the first thing I had eaten since noon.

My brother arrived triumphantly in the truck with Jerry following behind in the Samurai. He was in his office late that night fielding cancellation calls from people who had decided not to come because of the weather.

“Well heck. You guys did that pretty quick.”

“Yeah, well, it kept raining, so we kept moving”

“Well, that’s the thing. When you’re an outdoorsman, the rain doesn’t bother you much.”

Jerry helped us strap down the boats. He seemed thankfulthe two of us were some of the few people that didn’t cancel on him that weekend. He told us of some drive-up campsites down the road and we parted ways. I look forward to seeing Jerry again someday.

The campsites down the road that he suggested were at the Riverside Landing, which we had passed earlier in the day. After sitting in the truck with the heater blasting for about a half hour, we decided to set up the tent. If we didn’t, we were going to fall asleep in the truck with the engine running.

We camped very close to where we made the first of our fateful mistakes. We sat next to the river on which we had paddled 26 miles that day. We each had one beer for dinner and curled up into out beautifully dry and warm sleeping bags.

We woke up on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The riverside campground had filled up during the night, but we had been too tired to notice. I got out of the tent to stretch my legs and pee. The campground had just opened the day before, another fact we hadn’t noticed when we pulled in dead tired.

I had mixed feelings when I walked down to the riverbank. I felt like I had missed something. I felt this way even though I had passed this same spot the day before. Now the sun was out and it looked like a great day to be on the river. But I was turning to thoughts of seeing my wife and son later that day.

As I walked up from the riverbank, I noticed a bronze plaque in the middle of the campground. The plaque was dedicated to a local legend. His name was Albert and he had made his name by mapping out the surrounding area. The plaque went on to describe the many bronze coordinate markers he had placed in the surrounding area and how some of those markers are still being used today. This was the same man that had been with Jerry the outfitter on that last horse trek out west. The same man that almost died that day on the frightened horse. We had just paddled 33 miles in little over a day and yet we ended up meeting the same people that we had at the start.

As I sat there trying to take it all in before we started the long trip home, I was thinking about what Jerry said at the take out, that “when you’re an outdoorsman, the rain doesn’t bother you much.” Was he calling us outdoorsmen, or was he saying that if we were outdoorsmen, we would still be on the river? I’d like to think it was the former. Coming from him I would take that as a fine compliment.

My trip down the St. Croix River is something I will never forget, not so much for the beautiful scenery but for the people I met along the way. Some were surprises. Some were legends. Some were outdoorsmen.

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